213: Henry Atwell’s Ruskin

People read—some still read!—Ruskin for all sorts of reasons. Because—at least during his lifetime!—he was, however controversial at times, very much au currant; because he and his writings were widely reputed to be “important”; because, and more happily, they enjoyed his mellifluous words,  learned from and were challenged by his arresting arguments and manifest wisdom. To not a few he was a truly  “great man.” To fewer, he was deemed so great as to be called, “Master, ”  so important that they read and reread his works time and again, culling from them the moving words and love of Life and Creation to communicate which have been the central goal of this longs series of posts. (Such culling was a much more arduous task in those day,–an era when typewriters were owned by few, and none of the world was digitized as we now know it.

               One such devoted reader/admirer was HENRY ATWELL. Shortly after Ruskin’s death in 1900,  Atwell published, via George Allen in London and Longman and Green’s in New York, a little book (approximately 1” x 4” x 5”), to which he gave the title, Thoughts from Ruskin,. It contains more than 100 excerpts, most short, extracted from Ruskin’s works, and, in this guise,  it became one of the dozens of soon to be available compendia of extracts from the Master. (For a list of these, including short reviews of each expressing my thoughts as to their individual value, see 115: The Ruskin Compendia). Being  one of the first out of the compendia gate worked to the small volume’s advantage, for,  in the first year it was available, Atwell’s collection was reprinted no fewer than six times. However, as these collections go–and I am now aware of many– it is a fine one. Atwell really knew and loved his Ruskin and his generally exemplary  excerpts span the entirety of the published works. Reading them of late, I have been warmed by encountering  many “old friends “if  on different pages, and excited by discovering wonderful passages that I had either missed on earlier readings, or even had no recollection of having read before. Atwell’s little book is easily available on the web and I heartily recommend it. His basic approach to Ruskin, reflected in many of his selections, focuses on   social and ethical teachings, particularly his controversial political economy, but he also has lovely passages on Ruskin’s views on art—for a few of which, read on.

On the title page, Mr. Atwell is indicated as the “chooser” and “arranger” of the book’s contents. He is also identified as a “Knight” of “Tthe Order of the Oak Crown”, an  organization, the now extant world-wide web tells us, was founded in 1841 in Luxembourg and which, during its existence has boasted among its “Knights”  many of the luminaries of the 19th and 20th centuries, including various European princes, rulers and, in the 20th Century, such notables  as Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower. To be chosen as a Knight of  the Order,  a person had to have done noble public and/or military service or have created some particularly distinguished art. The Order’s Master, in perpetuity, in perpetuity,  is the reigning Grand Duke of Luxembourg. As might be expected, the Order created its own special– and impressive–insignia. It looked (still looks?) like this, its inscription reminding us  of the motto of the Order. “I shall maintain.”

But, if it is not difficult to find the “Order of the Oak Crown” on today’s Internet, it is considerably more  difficult to find reliable information on the “compiler and arranger” of Thoughts from Ruskin. “Atwell,”  is not a particularly uncommon surname, and a search for it turns up many of the “Henry” variety–sometimes the last name is spelled with two t’s). Even when one adds “Ruskin,” to the search, one is hard-pressed to find anything more than an image of the cover of the book. For these reasons,  I cannot in any good conscience provide you with a picture of our “compiler and arranger, “ though many pictures of folk known as  “Henry Atwell” do exist on the web, and not a few image worthies (or so we trust the are!)  dressed in 19th-century garb.

So, because I’m recommending  Thoughts from Ruskin to anyone reading this Post, we musy,  at this juncture,  be content with a few examples of Atwell’s “selections” from the works of his Master. Those appearing  below have been chosen to  give you a flavor of the collection as a whole which, should you acquire a copy (easily available at used book sites on the web),  you can repeatedly peruse for their “warming,” and “centering” qualities.” I recommend digestion at the pace of two or three a day– which, depending on the day or the power of the extracts, may be one or two too many). Our  first comes from one of the Fors Clavigera  letters of the 1870s and 1880s.

The wise man (Atwell) knows his Master. Less or more wise himself,  he will perceive lower or higher Masters, but his Master is always some creature larger than himself – exemplary of some law holier than his own. Such higher laws exist are and are intended to be sought and, if found, learned, loved, and obeyed. but in order to make their  discovery worthwhile, obedience must be accorded to the best one knows. Do this, and you will have a chance someday finding out what it IS best to obey. But if you begin by obeying nothing, you will end by obeying Beelzebub and variations of his always attendant  friends.

The next comes from one of the  volumes of the Stones of Venice (irritatingly, Atwell usually provides no more identification than this, making exact location of hos excerpts difficult.)

Have no fear of the judging between Nature and Art, so only that you love both. If you can love one only, then let it be Nature– you are safe with her. But do not then attempt to judge the art to which you do not care to give enough thought or time. But if you love both, you may judge between them fearlessly; you may estimate the last, by making by its making you remember the first, and giving you the same kind of joy. If, in the square of the city, you can find a delight, finite indeed, but pure and intense, like that which you have in a  valley among the hills, then its art and architecture are right; but if, after a fair trial, you can find no delight in them, nor any instruction like that existing  in nature, I call on you fearlessly to condemn them.

This next appears in one of the volumes of Modern Painters:

High art consists neither in altering nor improving Nature, but in seeking throughout Nature for whatsoever things are lovely and whatsoever things are pure; in loving these—and in displaying to the utmost the the loveliness as is in them, and in directing the thoughts of others to such things by winning art and gentle emphasis.

Next we read a passage from the lecture “Traffic,” drom the collection, The Crown of Wild Olive:

All delight in fine art, an, indeed, all art will resolve themselves into the simple love of that which deserves love. Such deserving is the quality which we call “loveliness” – we ought to have to have an opposite word, “hateliness”–  to be said of the things that deserve to be hated. And it is not an indifferent thing whether we love this or that; but it is just a vital function of all our being. What we like determines what we are and to teach taste is inevitably to form character.

It is would be hard to find greater wisdom expressed than in the following passage from The Laws of Fesole:.

Fix this in your mind as the guiding principle of all) labor, and source of all helpful life energy: that your art is to be the praise and something that you love. It may be only the praise of a shell, or a stone; or the praise of a hero; or, it may be the praise of God; your rank is a living creature is determined by the height and breadth of your love; whatever healthy art is possible to you must be an expression of your true delight in a real thing that is better than the art. You may think perhaps that a painting of  a bird’s nest by William Hunt is better than the real bird’s nest. We pay a large sum for the one and scarcely care to look at or think to save the other. It would be better for us that all the pictures in the world perished, then that the birds should cease to build their nests.

Finally, in conclusion, comes  consider this marvelous bit from On the Old Road, a late work of the 1880s (Ruskin never being in any way taken by the idea of “art for art’s sake”; the cration of art was always for him  very serious business, one of the greatest endeavors in which human beings can choose to engage as they try to  navigate life’s complexities:

The end of art is NOT to amuse. All art which proposes amusement as its end which is sought for that end, must be an inferior and is probably of a harmful, class. The end of art is as serious as that of all beautiful things: of the blue sky and green grass and the clouds and the dew.  They are either useless, or they of much deeper function than giving amusement. Whatever delight we take in  them, be it more or less, is not the delight we take from play or which we receive from momentary surprise

 It might be a matter of some metaphysical difficulty to distinguish the  two kinds of pleasure, but is perfectly easy for any of us to feel that there is genuine difference between the delight we have when seeing a comedy or in watching a sunrise. Not but there is a kind of Divina Commedia – a dramatic change in power – in  all beautiful things– the joy of surprise and incident perpetually mingles in music, painting,  architecture, and natural beauty itself…  but with the perfectness of eternal hue and form.

 But whenever the desire of change becomes principal, whenever we care only for new tunes or new pictures and new scenes, all power of true enjoyment in Nature or Art is  perished from us, and a child’s love of choices has taken its place. The continual advertisement of new music (as if  the word “new” were its virtue) signifies, in the inner fact of  it, that no one now cares for music. The continual desire for new exhibitions of pictures means that we no longer care for pictures; and our continual demand for new books means that nobody cares any longer to read.

The above, Good Friends, being but a few of the many gems to be discovered and ruminated upon in the elusive Mr. Atwell’s Thoughts from Ruskin, I hope you have found some pleasure and wisdom in  them.

Finally, for your consideration, here are a couple of images from our subject’s art which inform us of some of thet hings he loved.

The “Mer du Glace,” FRENCH Alps,  watercolor, Chamouni Valley, France.

And: “Woods near Brantwood,” watercolor, Coniston, Lake District, UK.

And so, until next time we meet, let me close this Post by wishing you the happiest, healthiest, and most peaceful of holidays!!

😊

Jim

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2 Responses to 213: Henry Atwell’s Ruskin

  1. Jonathan Chiswell Jones says:

    Thank you Jim. Your posts are always worth reading amid the flood of less consequential writings that my inbox serves in such floods. The master certainly provides nourishing food for thought and for life.

  2. As one of the new kids on the block, blog-wise, I must thank you sincerely for the continued inspiration you provide in these posts. As it happens, Attwell is someone I know a little about, and it may interest you and your readers if I share a little of it here.
    Professor Sir Henry Attwell (1834-1901) began his career as a teacher at the University of Leiden. You rightly say that he was awarded the Order of the Oak Crown. This was conferred in 1858 by King William III of the Netherlands for Attwell’s services in tutoring the King’s son, Prince William of Orange.
    Attwell set up a private boarding school, Nassau House in the South London district of Barnes. He taught up to 40 pupils aged between eight and 18 at any one time, and took them in from all over the country. A fairly prolific author, he became a friend of John Yeats, a keen Pre-Raphaelite, and father of the poet, W. B. Yeats.
    Before the publication of Thoughts from Ruskin (1900), George Allen published Attwell’s selection and translation, The Pensées of Joubert [sic] (1896). Ruskin wrote to him to say that it was “out and out the wisest and most precious I’ve ever seen in print”. [Works (38.166).]
    Further evidence of Attwell’s admiration for Ruskin is suggested by the fact that he made a pilgrimage to Ruskin’s museum at Walkley in September 1883 You will be able to read more in my forthcoming study, John Ruskin’s Sheffield.

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